Dumping Normal Rules of Evidence and Inquiry

Theology Gets a Free Pass to Make Things Up

Most of the gods imagined by humans—since we began imagining such things—have plied the miracle trade, so it’s hardly a surprise that miracles ended up in Bible narratives. Folks who have been taught since toddlerhood that the Bible is “God’s true story” commonly retain toddler naiveté about the Bible as long as they live. “One requirement for success as a sincere Christian,” Valerie Tarico and Marlene Winell have pointed out, “is to find a way to believe that which would be unbelievable under normal rules of evidence and inquiry.” (Psychological Harms of Bible-Believing Christianity)

Yet these folks are capable of stepping outside the “indoctrination fog.” When they come across nature-defying episodes in Disney movies, science fiction, fairy tales and Harry Potter, the naiveté vanishes: “Well, those are just make-believe.”

It doesn’t take much study to discover that the Christian scriptures emerged from a world of superstition and magical thinking. Hence so many of the Bible miracle events should also stand out as “make-believe.” The faithful would admit as much if they found these stories in other contexts.

For example, here is an episode found in the Book of Acts, 14:8-13:

“In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.”

This is another article in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on chapter 13 is here.

Why is this instant healing believable in the Bible, when the faithful would wave it off if they came across it in other genres? Because they have been trained to ignore normal rules of evidence and inquiry when they open their Bibles.

But a careful analysis of these six verses in Acts 14 exposes the incoherence and chaos in Christian theology. Let’s not ignore the rules of evidence and inquiry—and see how that turns out.

1. Paul shouted, ordering the man to stand up. The congenital birth defect was corrected by voice command. There is no known mechanism by which this could work, any more than it could be done by waving a wand. That is, it amounts to a magic spell. It’s akin to the neat trick of the Fairy Godmother in Disney’s Cinderella, transforming a pumpkin into a coach. There is no hint in that story that the Fairy Godmother had called upon a god to make it happen. She herself possessed magical powers.

2. In another genre, Paul could, by his extraordinary power, simply be a similar magical figure. But we’re in the New Testament, so naturally gods are pulled into the picture. The townsfolk assume that Paul and Barnabas are “gods come down to us,” which gives the apostles an opportunity to lecture them about the one true God. Once that is done, however, incoherence takes over; it would have been better to skip the theology.

3. If Paul was acting on behalf of the Christian God—that’s how he could heal a man by voice command—the goodness of God is called into question. Why didn’t God send Paul to cities and villages of the eastern Mediterranean to cure thousands of people with handicaps? Indeed, why not cure all people suffering from congenial birth defects? What a marvelous, humane thing that would have been. Why would a god with such awesome power choose to hold back? Isolated miracles—a special healing here or there—don’t make God look good. Matt McCormick has called attention to this incoherence:

“Millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.” (The Case Against Miracles, edited by John Loftus, p. 67) So, demerits to God for healing just one man.

4. But wait, it get’s worse: “…Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed…” Without the man’s faith it wouldn’t have happened? This adds another layer of magical thinking. It also makes God’s intervention conditional; are those who don’t have faith out of luck? Isn’t this an arbitrary way to run the world, favoring those who can’t or don’t apply critical thinking? No matter the religion or cult, faith is always proposed as a virtue—that’s how many silly beliefs are retained, e.g., that a deformity can be removed by voice command.

Back to the normal rules of evidence and inquiry. On the face of it, this story strikes us as typical folklore from the period; why take it seriously? The author of Luke-Acts—writing decades after Paul’s life—just drops the story (and many others like it) on his audience, who would have had no inclination to be skeptical. But skepticism must be our approach; we are bound to follow the rules of evidence. We would like to know where this story came from. What were the author’s sources?

And here’s the inconvenient truth: Luke doesn’t mention his sources, which—for us to be convinced—would have to include contemporaneous documentation, e.g., letters, diaries, interview transcriptions. Lacking these, one of the ploys of devout New Testament scholars is to assume that Luke had his “sources.”

It’s too frightening to admit that Luke’s stories came out of his imagination, one obvious example being the first two chapters of his gospel. So there must have been sources.

“The source behind this chapter is, however, problematic. Dibelius ascribed it to what he called the Itinerary sources, whereas Barrett and Weiser speak of it as coming from an Antiochene source. I consider it to be an episode that Luke has derived from his Pauline source, but it has undergone some Lucan redaction…” (Father Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31, p. 525) Speculation about sources is just that, based on conjecture and wishful thinking. “Lucan redaction” is much closer to the truth, i.e., his imagination. Unless there’s a document you can hold in your hand, your “source” is guesswork.

Of course we can stand in awe of Fitzmyer’s scholarship, e.g., his 800-page commentary on Acts. But the motivation for his intense Bible study was confidence that these documents are the Word of God. He believed that Paul was doing the Lord’s work. Much of chapter 14 recounts Paul’s struggles to win converts to the faith, at one point provoking such anger that people tried to stone him to death. But in this idealized account, faith won:

“There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’” (v.22) “…they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (v. 27) Fitzmyer seems convinced that this chapter captures truth about God: “Paul and Barnabas are thus good examples of the Church under Stress, as they boldly preach about the Lord who confirms their message with his grace and various signs and wonders” (p. 526). Secular scholars provide a welcome balance.

We also encounter banal theology here. Paul and Barnabas were shocked that the miracle of the healed man prompted the people to assume that they were gods (vv. 15-17):

“Men, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”

We commonly hear this sort of argument when believers find their backs against the wall, when we ask for reliable, verifiable evidence for God. They abandon attempts to defend complex theologies—the Trinity or divine omniscience—and wave their hands at the Cosmos and the grand sweep of the natural world: “Aha, these are proof of God, aren’t they! If it weren’t for God how would we have all this?” But that doesn’t prove the Christian God.

We now have pretty good ideas about how the heavens and the earth originated; too bad for most Christians that they haven’t studied modern cosmology. We know why we have “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons”—and if a deity is required, it need not be the God imagined in Christian theology; a grand, impersonal god would answer just as well. And this is theological slush: “…filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” That’s not quite the way God’s curses in Genesis 3 were supposed to work out. Christians should wring their hands that Luke didn’t have much theological depth.

There is something delightful about this Acts 14, however. Atheists get the last laugh here, in a sense, because Luke explains how religions get their start. When Paul the Magician had done his trick, the people exclaimed,

“The gods have come down to us in human form! Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates. He and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.”

See, the invention of gods is so easy!

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus. The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.